Network Neutrality Can’t Fix the Internet

Activists hold signs at a rally for network neutrality.

In a new video advocating for network neutrality—a name for regulating internet providers like public utilities—the American Civil Liberties Union declares that “giant internet companies shouldn’t have the power to mess with what we read, watch, and explore online.” The ACLU is referring to broadband and wireless carriers like Comcast and AT&T, who would have the power to throttle, charge for, or even block access to services, websites, or other online resources if the Obama-era rules are rolled back.

Yesterday, Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai announcedthe agency’s plans to do precisely that. The plan will likely pass along party lines at the next FCC meeting December 14.

It makes sense to construe broadband and wireless providers as common carriers, like telephone companies and utilities. And a majority of Americans, no matter their affiliation, support regulating internet providers in this manner. But advocates must also acknowledge that the internet is hardly a healthy environment for competition, consumer protection, and equity of use even with net-neutrality guidelines in place.

There’s reason to believe that internet providers will abuse their power absent net-neutrality oversight: They have a history of doing so.

In 2007, Comcast throttled traffic to BitTorrent, a popular peer-to-peer service used (both legally and illegally) to distribute entertainment content in competition with Comcast’s cable business. The FCC ruled the practice illegal in 2008, but its complaint against Comcast was ultimately dismissed due to a lack of regulatory authority to intervene in such cases. In 2012, AT&T blockedFaceTime, Apple’s video-chat service, because it competed with AT&T’s telephony offerings. The company reversed course after the threat of an FCC complaint on net-neutrality grounds. In 2014, Netflix filed an extensive opposition to the Comcast–Time Warner Cable merger, revealing that it had paid for direct access to Comcast broadband customers in consideration for delivery of its bandwidth-intensive streaming service. And in 2016, the FCC flagged AT&T for excluding DirecTV—a unit AT&T owns—from its customers’ data allocation.

To prevent such blocking, throttling, and pay for play in internet content delivery, the FCC published the Open Internet Report and Order in 2015, declaring internet service providers common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act. It is these protections that Ajit Pai—who previously worked for Verizon, a company that could benefit from the change—hopes to withdraw.